Although many dog lovers in Canada may not have yet had the opportunity to meet a Bergamasco, once they do, they will remember the breed as they are hard to forget. The Bergamasco Shepherd is a rustic dog who originated in the northern Italian and Swiss Alpine regions. The breed is characterized by its flocked coat, which resembles felts of sheep wool. The Bergamasco Shepherd's origins date back centuries and are tied to rural traditions and livestock breeding in northern Italy. The Bergamasco is a Herding breed that works primarily by tending large flocks of sheep in Alpine mountainous terrain and in the plains. After the Second World War, the breed was nearly decimated. Thanks to a few dedicated folks, some specimens were found in the mountains that were suitable for breeding, and the first breed standard was drafted in Italy in 1958.
Cut to the mid-2000s when Jeanine Dell’Orfano of Alp Angel Bergamascos bred the first Bergamasco litter in Nova Scotia. Jeanine has since bred 12 litters of this very rare breed and currently resides with 6 of them on her farm. I knew Jeanine was exactly who I needed to get in touch with to learn about this fascinating breed.
What initially drew you to the Bergamasco Shepherd?
I saw a photo of one in a dog breed encyclopedia when I was young and fell in love with the appearance of the dog. I was drawn to the unique coat and rustic appearance.
Describe the Bergamasco Shepherd’s personality.
Bergamascos* are intelligent, loyal to their people and very affectionate. They can be stubborn and independent. As puppies, they require a lot of positive experiences and socialization to become well-rounded adults as they can be suspicious of strangers and new things. Bergamascos are quirky, comical and endearing. They are devoted to their families on a deep level and thrive on connection and closeness.
How much exercise do they require?
They require a fenced yard or at least a couple of good walks a day. They retain their herding instincts and prey drive and like to chase things in the yard, and enjoy running and playing with balls outside. They love wind and cold weather and get more energetic and excited to be outside in cold months, especially in the snow.
Can they live in an apartment?
It is possible, but not easy nor ideal. They can be very barky and will often bark at external noises. So if they hear their neighbours talking in the hallway, they will likely bark. Unless there is an elevator, Bergamasco puppies should not be doing flights of stairs while they are still growing, so that can be an issue. It is important for Bergamascos to have access to the outdoors for free play. They do not do well at dog parks, so the only exercise while living in an apartment would be leashed walks, and that doesn’t allow the Bergamasco to run freely. I would not recommend this breed for apartment living.
Tell me about the coat and grooming requirements. Is shedding excessive?
The rustic coat is made up of three types of hair: the undercoat, “goat hair”, and outer coat. These three types of hair weave together to create the flat felted “flocks” that give this breed its unique appearance. The goat hair is a coarser, more wiry hair that is more prominent on the head, neck and front of the dog up to the withers. The coat is woolier towards the rear. This naturally allows for less weight of the coat in the front to allow for freedom of reach. The entire head and neck should naturally be less matted.
The coat doesn’t start to mat until they are 8 months or older. Until that point, regular brushing is all that is required. Once the coat begins matting, the flocking process has begun, and the majority of the grooming on the body is then done by hand. They do not shed their coats, and their coats will grow continuously in length, but the puppy coat does molt, and it is common to find tumbleweeds of hair around the house during that time.
Any health issues?
Like most breeds, they can suffer from hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, and cancer. Health testing is important for this breed.
How long do they usually live?
Generally 12-14 years.
Which dog sports are they involved in?
They are a versatile breed, and there are Bergamascos doing Agility, Rally, Herding, Fly ball, Scent Detection, Lure Coursing, Search and Rescue, as well as Conformation.
Are Bergamasco Shepherds easy to keep with other dogs?
If raised with them as puppies, yes. Some Bergamascos can be dog aggressive with strange dogs, and they are also sensitive to bad experiences with other dogs. They will remember it forever. Dog parks are a big no for this breed for that reason. Many Bergamascos live with other dogs, small dogs, cats and other pets without issues.
How are they with children?
In general, they are good with children if socialized with them as puppies. Because of their herding instinct, they can be triggered by loud children that are playing and running around if they are not used to it. If raised with children in the home, they tend to bond well with them and feel protective over them. As with all dogs, one should never leave a child and a dog together without supervision.
Who makes an ideal Bergamasco owner?
An ideal Bergamasco owner would be someone who has some familiarity with Herding breeds and their behaviour. Someone who is willing to be the leader, set boundaries and consistent rules for their dogs. An ideal owner would have to accept that Bergamascos in flocked coats will bring the outside into the home like a reverse mop. They will bring pine needles, twigs, grass and mud into the home, and their coats will require ongoing and consistent attention. An ideal Bergamasco is also someone who is around often and not working very long hours, as this breed thrives on human company and attention. They would have the time to spend with their dog to enrich them with some activity and mental stimulation.
Anything you would like everyone to know about Bergamasco Shepherds?
There are less than 30 Bergamascos in Canada at this time, but there are around 500 of them in the states. Since their recognition with the American Kennel Club, their popularity has grown slightly. Preserving this heritage breed is a large effort. Those who get to experience them immediately get a sense of how special they are.
The Bergamasco Shepherd might be the breed for you if:
- You like a unique and rustic-looking dog that will make it difficult for you to walk down a street without being stopped by folks wanting to take your dog’s photo.
- You desire a deep level of connection and love with a dog.
- You don’t mind barking.
- You are willing to work the coat daily to keep the flocks in good order.
- You want a dog that will alert you to anyone on your property.
The Bergamasco Shepherd might not be the breed for you if:
- You want a dog that has the personality of a Golden Retriever.
- You plan to use dog parks for socialization and exercise.
- You live in an apartment or don’t have a yard.
- You have white carpets.
- You can’t stand dirt on your floors.
Thank you to Jeanine Dell’Orfano for all her help with this blog. To connect with Jeanine of Alp Angel Bergmascos and to learn more about this unique breed, visit the Bergamasco Shepherd Association of Canada. https://www.bergamascocanada.com/home
*Plural in Italian is “Bergamaschi”. Both are used in English.